Friday, June 29, 2007

The Burial

I was mildly excited to go the burial on Saturday because it meant that I could sleep until 8 instead of 7. Or so I thought, until I was rudely awakened at 6:30 by the radio blaring and neighbor kids with their machine-gunning French. I only call it that because that’s what it sounds like on your eardrums, no matter what time of day it is, every hoarse syllable punctuated for maximum disturbance. My host mom had told me that we would get to the village where the burial would take place by car. I naturally assumed that meant a neighbor or family member’s car. However, I was again mistaken. After having wiped the stubborn mud off of my black leather shoes at the suggestion of my mother, I immediately resoiled them trudging back into town to find a car going to that village. It did not take long to find a car already full of people. I don’t know if anyone recalls the sept places of Senegal: station wagons that would fit three in the front and four in the back, but really, those are nothing compared to Cameroon, where in addition they shove in a petit chauffer. Instead of a station wagon, it’s a sedan. Instead of three in the front, it’s four. And I’m sure you’re thinking, wait, how is that even possible? Well, you put two in the passenger’s seat and two in the driver’s seat. Yes, mother, two in the driver’s seat. And all of cars are manual transmissions. No, I don’t know how they do it exactly. Yes, it is pretty much absolutely terrifying when you think about what might happen if someone’s leg gets in the way of the break pedal. My host mom and I took one of these contraptions to and from the burial, about 40 kilometers away.

For clarification, I would like to stress the difference between a burial (une enterrement) and a funeral (un funeraille). A burial occurs right after the person dies. Technically, no one is allowed to cry. They say a few words, bury the person, and have a feast. The funeral happens after the burial. Apparently, waiting a year in between is common so the family can save up enough money to have another big party. At the funeral, they often times dress up in the clothes of the deceased and dance to drums. Everyone is finally allowed to cry. Then, a successor to the deceased is chosen and they have another feast.

When we arrived at the village, most of the people attending the burial were already there. The woman who died was the cousin of my host mother. She died at 37 from some indeterminable illness. We passed through a group of people seated outside, where I heard someone murmur, “Voila la blanche,” which immediately annoyed me although I'm told that it should not. We entered a windowless, large, dank room with mud-brick walls and a dirt floor. This was the first time in my life that I’ve been to a funeral with an open casket. What everyone says is true. Dead people look much smaller than alive people, as if they deflated as their spirit left them. The funeral flowers, like every other flower I have seen thus far, were plastic. Ribbons wrapped across the arrangements read “Nous ne t’oublierons jamais” (We will never forget you) and “Reste en paix avec Dieu” (Rest in peace with God). Women in the corners were singing off-key hymns, while a brother tried as best he could to withhold tears. Then the grandmother and great aunt came in and started doing this wailing chant that was absolutely heartbreaking. I almost cried, myself, even though it wasn’t allowed. During the actual service, a woman wearing a dress with kerosene lanterns on it read bible verses in French. I was left up alone in front of the crowd of people as the family took the coffin away for the actual burial. I felt out of place and uncomfortable, staring down at my lap to avoid any eye contact.

Finally, my host mother returned and we filed back into the windowless room to start the feast of grilled fish, chicken, beef, and pork, stewed goat extremities with plaintains, rice with sauce, boiled plantains, fried plaintains, and baton de maniac. I took one bite of the chicken, before I realized that it was cold and that the Peace Corps recommends avoiding all food that is not properly heated. My host mom kept slipping me pieces of baton de maniac, which is fermented cassava root pounded, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed to perfection. At least I think that's how it works. It smells kind of sour, but looks and tastes almost exactly like string cheese. My mind refuses to accept this contradiction, and I have a hard time swallowing it although I actually don't mind the taste. I tried my first raffia wine, which is white and sweet with a kick to it.

We took another crammed taxi back to my village, pausing at a roadblock for several minutes while women tried to sell us kola nuts and ginseng. Apparently ginseng is used as a cure-all elixer. Kola nuts are intensely caffeinated, bitter nuts. I finally tried one, completely shocking myself with the bitterness of the first bite. However, as I had more, it became less intense, and a strange, sweet aftertaste lingered in my mouth for hours afterward.

Wow, my first experience of death in Africa, and I haven't even been here a month. Later that night, my host mom asked me if people ever got sick in America. I told her that it wasn't the same, all the while feeling a little guilty about my malaria prophylaxis and rabies vaccinations.

On a more general note, I'm ready for stage to be over. However, we started working with companies in town, and I'm working with the owner of a laundry and general store, encouraging him to create an inventory list, a cash book, and improve his customer service. All of a sudden, I'm responsible. In fact, the Peace Corps picked me to be the leader of the small business group because I'm dynamique, whatever that means exactly. I find out my post in a few weeks! Wish me luck!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Tu connais le franglais?

June 22, 2007

I know that ca fait longtemps depuis I said that I would even begin posting on this blog, but honestly, il y a toujours quelque chose qui m’empeche. The African sensory overload, causing a necessary, constant state of alert is already tiring. Throw in 4-6 hours of French class and some “tech” class, and by 16:30, I’m ready for a large nap. I kept hearing from everyone that training felt kind of like purgatory, and now I fully understand. The sun sets at about 18:30, so I have little to no time to venture en ville and back after class and before dark. There are no street lamps, large holes in the ground and voyous about, so I am not yet comfortable staying out at night. I’ve been feeling bad about neglecting my host family, because I normally don’t come home until sunset. After I arrive, I sit on a footstool in the teeny kitchen, talk to my host mom while she finishes dinner, and pretend to be useful. Then we eat, watch Argentinean soap operas dubbed into French, and then I retire to my room to faire les devoirs, or read, or pass out really really early.

With my two spare hours after class and before the sun sets, I usually accompany my fellow stagieres to the “boutique” to prendre UNE biere SEULEMENT. This boutique consists of a small enclosed courtyard with tables and plastic chairs, a TV, and several children running around. Attached to the courtyard is a smaller room with a counter, behind which can be bought any number of trucs, including hardboiled eggs, cookies, Fanta, or a variety of Cameroonian beers. All of this is attached to the propriétaire’s house. He seems pretty stoked that God decided to ship him a daily dose of 30 white folk that have funds enough to buy one beer a day, even though we are loud and some of the women smoke in public like prostitutes (Did I mention that that is what happens here? One girl was already propositioned.). They are redoing the roads right outside, and, after several of us totally ate it trying to jump over the newly tilled ditch (including me), the proprietaire even decided to spring for a little bridge. Although I have not yet had my marketing tech class, I give him and “A” for customer service.

I’ve gotten used to the humidity, although the mud is still a constant mystery and battle for me. I’m getting more and more accustomed to my house every day. The Peace Corps provides us with a metal trunk, a water filter, a kerosene lantern, two candles, a box of matches, two rolls of toilet paper, two bottles of water, a mosquito net, sheets and a blanket and pillow, and door that locks. I try to keep the net wrapped as tightly around my bed as possible to avoid the things that go bite in the night. Although we have all been meticulous about taking our malaria medicine (to the detriment of sweet dreams), someone already got malaria. Luckily, the medical staff seems pretty on top of it, and she only missed one amazing day of training. Little lizards skitter around on the walls, and cockroaches lurk in the corners. Since most of the houses have cement walls, most of them seem to keep a dankness in the air. My walls are painted bright blue and my window faces the porch, so ear plugs come in handy on the rare occasion that I can take a nap and want to block out the gaggle of kids noisily entertaining themselves juste devant la maison. Mais tu vas me sentir! Like in Senegal, power outages and water coupages are endemic, so my host mother keeps several buckets and plastic gas cans full of water in the bathroom and I keep my flashlight handy. I think the fridge works, but I’m not sure about the oven, which is currently being used to store onions and potatoes.

On a more sobering note, three trainees decided to ET (early termination) this week. All of them gave various reasons, but the major trends that I noticed between the three of them was #1. Lack of a functional French level and #2. Unfinished business elsewhere in the world. Naturally, other people leaving sparks self-doubt in everyone. I myself considered what it would be like to ET, not as an actual possibility, but as a, “Hmm, what would I do then?” sort of thing. However, I realized that there is nothing. I am doing this, and that is that. I am totally into it and excited. I can communicate well enough that I can no longer make the “What? I don’t understand you” excuse, and I feel like the chapters of my life in the US are finished for now. Although I know that it will not be smooth sailing, there is nothing that I feel like I would rather be doing. I’m just sorry that those three people left so soon. Training is certainly not post, and people really underestimate the amount of integrating we’ll be doing in the next few weeks, even though now is not fun. I’m so excited to hear where I’ll be posted…. Can’t wait.

Au debut du Stage

June 18, 2007

I just moved into my host family’s house in a moderately sized town in the West Province. You can tell that it is in the west because of the humidity. I have been consistently sweating all day long, although I attribute that more to the 4 hour, stifling bus ride. It is kind of funny how much I love to travel, and how much I actually hate the process of traveling. At least, when you are traveling in your own private sauna or tube of reprocessed air in the sky.

I have been ridiculously ready to move in with the host family and away from the other volunteers. This is not because I do not like them. In fact, I like them all a great deal. However, for the past week we have been shuttled back and forth between a hotel and an office, seeing little to none of Cameroon or of Cameroonians. No one has had to speak French, and no one has had to take a step outside the box.

Do you get to eat avocados for breakfast? I know that you may be asking yourself if you want to… I’m asking myself the very same question.

The mud is absolutely amazing here. It’s the rainy season, and evidence of frequent cloudbursts has to be scraped off of my shoes with a thin machete every night after I return home. Today, I was so moved by the mud created by torrential rains that persisted for over an hour that I wrote a “franglais” poem portraying my absolute wonderment. It goes something like this:

Je chante a la boue

Qui existe partout

Meme dans ma shoe…

Profonde dans les trous

Elle me rend fatiguee

Et le jour est complet

Si on se rencontre

Au debut

Awful. So bad. And so it begins… It is so much easier to write kitchy poetry if you have more than one language to use for the rhyme sequence. There is only one paved road that I’ve seen in town, and the rest are composed of this deep red dirt, trampled by thousands of feet over god knows how long. Even when the paths are dry, constant surveillance is necessary if one is to avoid falling face first into an inconveniently placed ditch created by runoff from the previous rainy season. Instead of the traditional washboard phenomenon that occurs on dirt roads when there is a lot of automobile traffic during the rain, the washboard takes on a different texture from the overabundance of foot traffic. I am still having problems getting lost on the route from my house to our training house because I have to watch where I’m going so carefully.

Although it rains here so frequently, everyone runs when they feel the first raindrops start to fall and you can find yourself in the company of strangers under an awning, nothing in common but avoiding the downpour and the mud ensemble. The people running by clearly have somewhere to be, or are already too wet to care.

Everyone in the group (myself included) is having a difficult time adjusting to the switch from the hotel to the village. It is incredibly complicated to portray the difficulties of adjusting to a completely foreign culture. It is one thing to cite the obvious differences, such as the inclusion of extended family in most houses, or even the more subtle differences, such as the fact that it is unseemly for women to cross their legs in public. However, knowing where cultures end and real personality begins is the real challenge. It would be difficult for an American to immediately adjust to moving in with a previously unknown American family. Individual strangers placed into situations where everyone else knows each other are going to rarely feel comfortable. Each group has its idiosyncrasies, each its anomalies. Trying to pigeonhole one family into a specific culture is a fruitless endeavor, however, trying to take a family out of its cultural context is also inherently useless. Unfortunately, instead of being able to observe the family and culture behind a double sided mirror, we are placed right in the middle of everything. So what comes next? Somehow trying to discern culture, family and where you fit in exactly. I just thank le bon Dieu that I already speak French and have already visited Africa.

Although, I may have eaten something sketchy today.

While I try to keep the cultural faux pas to a minimum, it is absolutely necessary to have them in order to exemplify the true differences between our culture. I mean, if everything went smoothly, it would be too easy, right? I feel like I can deal with most cultural differences. And then the food decides to blindside me. I thought I would be safe in Cameroon where they have so many fruits and vegetables… Safe until a bowl full of stewed cow hooves are placed in front of me. Three to be exact. I don’t know if I could handle one. I don’t know what it is about food that creates such different habits among people. My host mom knows that cow feet are delicious and that it was necessary for me to try them. There is no doubt in my mind that cow feet are probably delicious if you grow up eating them. They may even be an acquired taste. Mais pour moi qui etais vegetarienne? I don’t think so. It’s not even really a question of wanting to or not. My body, as much as I may push it, refuses to ingest cow foot. Or maybe it’s just the cultural pathways burned in my brain. I’m sure I’ll have to time to experiment with my absolute limits within the next two years.

God knows when I will actually get around to posting this blog.

Last night I was watching a Nigerian movie with my host mom. Although they speak English in Nigeria, my host mom determined that the accent might be too difficult for me, so she translated everything into French. I could totally understand everything they were saying, but I let her. Tonight, she had a friend visit who insisted on speaking in English and I got to see how good her English really is. However, it was honestly très difficile pour moi de parler en anglais après avoir parlé en français pendant toute la journée. We have only been here for a limited amount of time and I can already see the improvement in my language. In fact, I caught myself unconsciously thinking in French earlier. However, it really comes and goes, and I can never tell when I will be able to speak with relative fluency or be completely dumbfounded. I consistency is what I’m aiming for in the long run.

By the way, just so everyone knows, this internet connection is impossible, so infrequency in posting will be normal. Dommage.